By: Donovan Choy
There is a common consensus in Singapore where Singaporeans regard the state media as biased and largely prepared to serve and obey the state unquestioningly. This is commonly observed through alternative news outlets and on social media; the state print media like The Straits Times, Today, Berita Harian, Tamil Murasu or Lianhe Zaobao/Wanbao are often dismissed as nothing more than tools of the state, willingly pushing out state agendas in a positive light, downplaying any follies of the ruling party, flogging to death any missteps of opposition parties (see AHPETC saga) and effectively framing political discussion in the political landscape of Singapore as deemed by the ruling party.
While this is true, critics of Singapore’s state media are often misled into focusing on the news outlets directly instead of dissecting the issue of an unfree press at its very root. The state media is so deftly effective at framing political discussion precisely because of its artificial monopoly on consumer readership given by enacted laws like the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) of 1974, a central truth that needs underscoring.
In a nutshell, the NPPA deters entrepreneurs from setting up private newspaper companies. This set of laws requires them to jump through a series of loops and hurdles of bureaucratic licensing and permits, binding them to a list of rules and regulations – red tape that is non-existent if a young entrepreneur instead were to start up an ordinary business in Singapore. Later amendments also gazetted foreign publications that did not publish conservatively on Singapore’s political affairs such as the Asian Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and more.
Instead of levying claims of media bias against the state media or constantly trotting out the fact that Singapore ranks lowly in the Press Freedom Index, Singaporeans who care about freedom of information in the media should channel their efforts toward repealing the NPPA. What is more important is the presence of market competition that gives Singaporeans various ways to be informed, instead of being locked into a small number of media choices.
Should We Fault The State Media For Being Biased?
It is first most important to note that the ideal of a perfectly neutral news source that affords adequate and sufficient coverage on all perspectives of every issue of importance is nothing more than a fantasy ideal that consumers often hold up as a gold standard when critiquing media bias. In reality, all newspapers operate within their own form of bias.
Even in freer countries like the U.S., its biggest newspapers are equally biased to its own agendas and not that much different from The Straits Times: Fox News is practically the mouthpiece for the Republican Party whereas newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post are extremely left-leaning.
To reiterate, the situation of prejudiced and biased media is not one that is unique to Singapore; biased news outlets are omnipresent even in countries with high press freedom. The stark difference, however, is that the thousands of newspaper across the country all working in its own self-interests indirectly balance each other out, leaving the average American with the option to choose from a variety of sources to keep themselves informed on national issues. This is not the case in Singapore due to the aforementioned artificial monopoly of state media enabled by laws like the NPPA – designed specifically to fulfil this purpose.
But doesn’t the digital age of today render all this invalid? Until the advent of the internet and social media in the early 2000’s, Singaporeans who sought an alternate view on political issues could scarcely find them.
If that were true, then Singaporean alternative news sites would be able to operate freely and without excessive regulation. But true to its top-down authoritarian approach, the PAP has also stepped in to regulate the online sphere with the Broadcasting Act through the Media Development Authority (MDA), requiring online sites (even hybrid entertainment news sites like Mothership) that report on current affairs and news with a certain number of viewership to be licensed, thereby binding it to a whole host of rules and regulations and curtailing its reporting freedom.
Stop Paying Attention To Everything You Read
A landmark political science paper published in 1962 (Bachrach & Baratz) explains that to understand power, it is not by looking at the decisions that are made, but instead to look at the decisions that are NOT made. Termed as “nondecision-making”, exercising power involves suppressing the addition of new issues to the status quo and agenda for discussion.
And this is precisely what laws like the NPPA cultivates. The hotly-contested political issues that Singaporeans concern themselves with are largely what the ruling party allows its citizens to debate.
For instance, while you’re busy commending the Ministry of Health on handling the recent Zika virus outbreak because The Straits Times plastered an entirely new column on the front of their news page to indicate its significance, you’ve clean forgotten the mishandling of the Hepatitis-C outbreak in SGH just several months earlier.
When you’re busy hurling blame or defending the Worker’s Party during the AHPETC fiasco, you’ve forgotten that one of the most basic and fundamental civil rights to get married is still denied to gay couples in Singapore.
While you’re carefully scrutinising the proposed changes to the Non-constituency Member of Parliament scheme (NCMP), or the criteria of the upcoming Elected Presidency and its possible consequences for the eligibility of Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, it has slipped your mind that the Elections Department that organises constituency boundaries and every other aspect of our “democratic” elections is still directly under the Prime Minister’s Office!
By and large, the hotly-debated topics in the Singaporean political landscape are framed, vetted and endorsed by the ruling elite, even when it seems to be against the interests of the state. The result of nondecision-making is that specific figures, perspectives or issues are excluded and stamped out. The scope of the debate is structured and limited to keep at bay “controversial” issues and to include issues seen as “safe”.
A common objection here is that one can always choose to unsubscribe from The Straits Times and take their news solely from alternative platforms like The Online Citizen, Wake Up Singapore, The Middle Ground, TR Emeritus, The Independent SG or States Times Review.
But this naive line of thought fails to recognise the fact that alternative news sites are also bound to the agenda-framing of the state media when one considers how fiercely regulated these online sites are, although they do successively challenge the agenda-setting of the state media at times. Since these sites are forced to be licensed under the Broadcasting Act and may risk losing their permit at the whim of the MDA’s arbitrary standards of regulations, they are not only pressured to err on the side of caution by conforming to mainstream news agendas, but they have all the more incentive from a financial standpoint to publish news articles that already have a social media foothold, rather than unearthing news stories simply because they are of informative value – the latter of which is the essence of journalism.
As long as the NPPA stays in effect, then so does the media monopoly that the state media enjoys – not just across the medium of print, but television, magazine and radio too. And as long as this monopoly of state media persists, then Singaporeans who truly care about their country and critique the ruling party in hopes of positive change are merely splashing mud around in a carefully and specifically designated mudhole that has been dug out for them to mud-sling in.
Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest intellectuals of our time put it succinctly: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”
It is time the “30%” minority stop lamenting about the voting outcome of the last elections. Singaporeans need to look outside of this spectrum, and to look outside of this spectrum is to look at the laws in our constitution that has limited this spectrum, then scrutinise and combat it accordingly. Change can only occur with a free flow of information and ideas, and the root of this problem starts with laws like the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act. Until our efforts and attention are refocused on the barriers to entry, lambasting The Straits Times as a biased newspaper is ultimately a pointless and fatuous affair.